Saturday, 1 June 2019

Delight or Dilemma?

The peonies are blooming, big fat pink globes swaying in the breeze. Just bend down and take a carries you right back to childhood’s scents and sights.

And here are the irises – frilly yellow petals perking up a corner of the yard.

The bleeding hearts are still dancing daintily from their curved stems, and the first red, red rose of summer has appeared on the trellis by the shed. This back yard is a gardener’s delight.

And also, unfortunately, a gardener’s dilemma, overshadowed by a big question mark. The question is this: is our garden helping or harming the earth?

You see, my eyes have been opened to a problem. My enlightenment has come about bit by bit. It started when a friend posted a blog about native plants and their importance to wildlife habitat; almost in her footsteps, one of my blog-subscribers suggested I might consider some native plants for our pretty garden that I’d been bragging about. Then came the books, such as Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy.

Then, two weeks ago, the latest prod: a workshop with the inviting title “Attracting Birds, Bugs, Butterflies and Bees to our gardens.” The teacher looked like a sweet woman, but she was fierce about her cause.  “The insects are disappearing,” she said, mincing no words. “It’s not just nice to attract wildlife to our gardens. It’s imperative.” And our lovely ornamental gardens are not doing a good job at that.

There are numerous studies to prove that insects species are declining at an alarming rate, and you can't really argue with the numbers. You can read all about this at This is distressing reading, but it is important. This is our world, and there is no Planet B. Reading the information available to us is like studying the instruction manuals for Preserving Planet A. We've been pretty arrogant in the past, thinking we know it all. But we don't.

Insects aren't sexy or cute, like the panda, so they don't get a lot of attention. But, say the scientists, they are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems; they pollinate plants, are food for other animals, aerate our soil, shred plant and animal debris, control other insect pests, and even, in some nations, provide a protein-rich food source to humans. But they are disappearing at the rate of 2.5% per year. That doesn’t sound like much till you do the math and add it to what has already been lost. Within 100 years, this planet may well be barren.

The main reason for this decline is the way we do agriculture, removing thickets and trees from the edges of fields, draining wet areas, using herbicides and insecticides that kill off the grubs that continue to renew the soil. Climate change is also a contributing factor, but so are the ways we take care of our urban spaces. And that's where our gardens come in.

The reasoning goes something like this: most pollinator insects have evolved alongside certain host plants. They are on the lookout for those plants, and no matter how colourful and attractive our gardens are, filled with exotics from Japan and hybrids bred for gorgeous colours, these insects will not come visit your flowers for the simple reason that they don’t recognize them. We take pride in our neat and tidy gardens, but insects are looking for messy places to hide and nest. I ask myself if my lovely peonies are just taking up space, while starving butterflies and insects are desperately looking for sustenance.

I am not so naive as to think that if I fix up my garden, the problem will be solved. “However,” says Tallamy, “because nearly 85% of the U.S. is privately owned, our private properties are an opportunity for long-term conservation if we design them to meet the needs of the life around us.” (My guess is Canadian statistics are similar.) “We need to redesign residential landscapes to support diverse pollinator populations and complex food webs, store carbon, and manage our watersheds.”

"So," I ask my workshop leader, "does this mean I have to tear out my peonies, irises, and other beauties and replace them with goldenrod and willows? Are you saying I can't plant geraniums and petunias in our patio pots anymore?"

Well, at least there's one "goodie" in here. I planted a trailing mint, which attracts lots of insects.
She smiles. “We call this ‘editing’ the garden,” she says gently.

So that’s what I’m doing: I’m editing our garden. I am thankful there are many good things going on in our yard – the pond attracts numerous birds and insects, the shady back corner is mostly native, the herb bed is abuzz with insects all summer long, and the garden has been pesticide-free since the beginning. We have native shrubs like huckleberry and oregon grape providing berries in winter. But I can see some places where change could happen.

Right now it is just an exercise on paper. The RS is not so sure about this, and the workshop leader tells me that she does offer marriage mediation services. We may need it!

1 comment:

  1. Hello Jessie,
    LOVE what you say and the way you say it. Sharing!!! Sending many hugs,